FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) Jace Amaro remembers not being able to catch his breath on the sideline, the pain intensifying with each heave of his chest.
That's when the fear kicked in.
The New York Jets' second-year tight end was a sophomore at Texas Tech in 2012 when he got popped in the midsection by a West Virginia defender before halftime. The hit sure hurt, but not enough for him to leave the game. Amaro caught two more passes in the second half - and then his body told him it was time to stop.
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''I couldn't breathe anymore,'' Amaro recalled during training camp. ''I was literally bleeding to death.''
Amaro had a lacerated spleen - a potentially life-threatening situation - along with a broken rib. He had massive internal bleeding, needing more than six units of blood. Amaro was hospitalized and on bed rest for three weeks.
''If I would have just went home or stayed out that night or something, I probably would have died,'' he said. ''That's how severe it was. It's crazy knowing I was playing while my organ was literally bleeding itself out.''
After a battery of tests, he was told he'd be sidelined two weeks. Then, it was upped to four weeks, and then six.
''The final doctor was like, `Nah, you're out the rest of the year,''' Amaro said. ''I was so mad, I was crying.''
Amaro somehow made it back on the football field 2 1/2 months later, just in time to play against Minnesota in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. He had two catches for 15 yards - before being ejected for punching an opponent - in the Red Raiders' 34-31 victory.
''It was definitely life-changing for me,'' Amaro said. ''It was a big eye-opener for me. It made me realize how short this game can be for you, how much I love football and my team. It made me play a lot better the next season.''
That's for sure. Amaro established himself as one of college football's top pass-catching tight ends, finishing with an eye-popping 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a second-round draft pick by the Jets, who expected big things from the rookie.
It proved to be a tough transition for Amaro, who had just 38 catches for 345 yards and two TDs while dealing with criticisms from fans, coaches and media for lapses in concentration at times.
''Obviously, I wasn't 100 percent comfortable with what I was doing,'' Amaro said. ''I was overthinking things. I know that I have great hands. I mean, even last year, I felt like I caught the ball really well at some points, and made some pretty tough catches. But I also know I dropped some pretty easy ones.''
He heard the doubts about his blocking abilities and the concerns about the drops. There was also the very-public back and forth he had this offseason with former coach Rex Ryan, who was ticked off by Amaro's opinion that the Jets lacked accountability last season.
It all made for a rough introduction to the NFL for Amaro.
''After going through a full year, I learned that you can't let the little things bother you,'' he said. ''People can say what they want. If it's a fact, it's a fact - and you've got to prove it otherwise. I caught almost 110 passes in college in one season, so I know I can catch the ball. It's really the least of my worries, being able to catch the ball.''
Amaro is learning a new system again with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey on coach Todd Bowles' staff. His blocking appears to be improved so far this summer, something that could potentially keep him on the field more.
''He's in great shape and he's very focused,'' quarterback Geno Smith said. ''I talk to Jace a lot, and I want him to do well. I think he can be a key contributor in this offense.''
The fact Amaro can go up to Smith or any other teammate is another huge change for him as he enters his second season. He acknowledged there were rookie growing pains a year ago, trying to feel his way through the locker room and find teammates to lean on.
After all he had gone through to get here, the last thing Amaro wanted to do was alienate himself. He looks around now and sees buddies all over the field - and has the feeling that he belongs.
''I feel like I'm playing with my friends instead of playing with just some guys,'' Amaro said. ''I just feel really comfortable. I know what I'm playing for now. I've got a year under my belt and that's the biggest thing about it. I'm playing with a group of guys that I care about and that just makes you play more confident.
''You know the guy playing next to you wants you to succeed, wants you to do well - and you just want to help them win games.''
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